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How the history of surnames affects your ancestry

Surname Meanings
22 August 2014

People have always had names, of course. It’s how we distinguish between one another. But in the big picture, we really haven’t used surnames for all that long.

China might be the exception. Way back in 2852 BC, the emperor Fu Xi standardized the naming system there, for reasons related to census taking. Until the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), people seemed to use matrilineal surnames, but afterward, they had switched to using patrilineal ones.

The oldest surname known to have been recorded anywhere in Europe, though, was in County Galway, Ireland, in the year 916. It was the name “O Cleirigh” (O’Clery).

In England, the Normans introduced surnames after 1066. At first, names were frequently changed or dropped, but eventually they began to stick and were passed down in a family — by the aristocracy to start with and eventually by the rest of the people. By 1400, most English families, and also those of lowland Scotland, were using surnames that were hereditary. Wives took the husband’s last name, and King Henry VII (1491-1547) ordered that children’s names be recorded under the father’s last name.

Names were frequently spelled differently, though; many of our ancestors did not read or write, and clerks and other scribes wrote names down in various ways. The name Shakespeare, for example, was spelled in various records of the time as Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakkespere, Shaxpere, Shakstaff, Sakspere, Shagspere, Shakeshafte and even Chacsper. (Read about finding your ancestors despite spelling variations.)

In Wales, they used a patronymic system of passing down the father’s first name to be used as the child’s surname, and this continued in some parts of Wales until the later Middle Ages. “Ap” or “Ab” meant “son of,” as did “Up-,” “O’,” “Fitz-,” “Witz-,” and “Sky-.” So the son of Rhys was Ap Rhys, which evolved into Preece or Price. The surname Powell came from Ap Howell, Pritchard from Ap Richard, and Bowen from Ab Owen.

The history of Scottish names took two paths. Scots from the Highlands were Gaelic, and when they gave allegiance to a clan, they adopted that clan name as their surname (such as Mackintosh, Macdonald, Buchanan, Drummond, Campbell, Stewart, and Cameron, among others). Scots in the Lowlands tended to have surnames influenced by the English.

In Japan, it was mostly the aristocracy that had surnames before the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. In 1868, the new Meiji government made it mandatory to take a surname.

The Netherlands did not have compulsory surnames until the French emperor Napoleon required them in 1811. Thailand required surnames in 1913 and Turkey in 1934. Some countries still do not use surnames, including Iceland, Tibet, Burma, Java, and many groups in East Africa.

— Leslie Lang

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